In a newly released opinion, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision terminating the parental rights of the mother of two boys. The case, In re Domingo, reinforces the seriousness of state interference with an individual’s fundamental right to care for her children, as well as the constitutional mechanisms in place to protect that right.
The mother had been placed in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) when she was 17. At that time, she was pregnant with her second child. She had relinquished custody of her first child through a voluntary placement agreement, and they all resided together with her foster parents. During the pregnancy of her second child, the mother was hospitalized for mental disturbances after threatening to kill herself and her unborn child. Days after the mother gave birth to her second child, both children were removed from her care after reported instances of abuse.
Under both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions, a person has a fundamental right to the care, custody, and control of his or her child. Thus, the state may interfere with an individual’s parental rights only if there is a compelling state interest, and if it is proven by clear and convincing evidence that: (1) statutory grounds exist for termination; and (2) termination is in the child’s best interest. The reasonable efforts of DCS in reuniting the parent with her children are considered in the context of the best interest of the child analysis.
The Court of Appeals ultimately held that DCS proved by clear and convincing evidence that the mother was incompetent and unable to care for her children, and that it was unlikely she would be able to adequately care for them in the near future, as provided by Tenn.Code Ann § 36-1-113(g)(8)(B). The court referenced the testimony of doctors who had examined the mother, which revealed that she had reduced mental functioning, as well as difficulty controlling her emotions. Although the court recognized that people with low IQs can still parent a child, in this situation, the mother’s low adaptive functioning precluded her from being able to console, calm, or empathize with her children, characteristics that her doctor testified are associated with abuse and neglect. In addition, the mother was unable to independently care for her own welfare and had been enrolled in the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (DIDD). The persistence of these conditions led the Court of Appeals to also find a second statutory ground for termination under Tenn.Code Ann § 36-1-113(g)(3).
The court next addressed whether termination of parental rights was in the best interest of the children, considering the statutory factors provided by Tenn.Code Ann § 36-1-113(i). In particular, the court noted that the older child, who initially exhibited behavioral issues, had become well-mannered since he was put into the care of his foster parents, who wished to adopt both children, and that the younger child had only ever known them as his parents. The court also found that in addition to the mother’s inability to care for herself and her children, removing either child from their current, stable situation would have a negative effect.
Custody battles and matters involving DCS can be an emotionally difficult experience. The attorneys at the Nashville firm of Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard are committed to helping clients in a variety of family law issues, as well as estate planning and personal injury matters. To schedule a consultation, call (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.